The BEST Episodes of A History of Britain by Simon Schama
Every episode ever - ranked by fan votes!
Last Updated: Aug 27, 2021
Network: BBC One
Stretching from the Stone Age to the year 2000, Simon Schama's Complete History of Britain does not pretend to be a definitive chronicle of the turbulent events which buffeted and shaped the British Isles. What Schama does do, however, is tell the story in vivid and gripping narrative terms, free of the fustiness of traditional academe, personalising key historical events by examining the major characters at the centre of them. Not all historians would approve of the history depicted here as shaped principally by the actions of great men and women rather than by more abstract developments, but Schama's way of telling it is a good deal more enthralling as a result. Schama successfully gives lie to the idea that the history of Britain has been moderate and temperate, passing down the generations as stately as a galleon, taking on board sensible ideas but steering clear of sillier, revolutionary ones. Nonsense. Schama retells British history the way it was--as bloody, convulsive, precarious, hot-blooded and several times within an inch of haring off onto an entirely different course. Schama seems almost to delight in the goriness of history. Themes returned to repeatedly include the wars between the Scots and the Irish and the Catholic/Protestant conflicts--only the Irish question remains unresolved by the new millennium. As Britain becomes a constitutional monarchy, Schama talks less of Kings and Queens but of poets and idea-makers like Orwell. Still, with his pungent, direct manner and against an evocative visual and aural backdrop, Schama makes history seem as though it happened yesterday, the bloodstains not yet dry.
#1 - The Two Winstons (1910 - present)
Season 3 - Episode 4 - Aired Jun 18, 2002
Schama's last programme is a meditation on the place of the past in Britain's 20th-century history. Personified in the sharply different reactions of two of its greatest figures, Winston Churchill and George Orwell, the programme explores the fate of the country through two world wars, the slump and a nervous postwar peace. What was the impact of the crusades and the protests of the century, and did Winston Smith, hero of Orwell's 1984, foresee the contemporary political landscape?
#2 - Nations (1216 - 1348)
Season 1 - Episode 4 - Aired Oct 21, 2000
Nations is the epic account of how the nations of Britain emerged from under the hammer of England's "Longshanks" King Edward I, with a sense of who and what they were, which endures to this day.
#3 - Conquest! (1000 - 1087)
Season 1 - Episode 2 - Aired Oct 7, 2000
1066 is not the best remembered date in British history for nothing. In the space of nine hours whilst the Battle of Hastings raged, everything changed. Anglo-Saxon England became Norman and, for the next 300 years, its fate was decided by dynasties of French rulers.
#4 - The British Wars (1603 - 1649)
Season 2 - Episode 1 - Aired May 8, 2001
The turbulent civil wars of the early seventeenth century would culminate in two events unique to British history; the public execution of a king and the creation of a republic. Schama tells of the brutal war that tore the country in half and created a new Britain - divided by politics and religion and dominated by the first truly modern army, fighting for ideology, not individual leaders.
#5 - The Wrong Empire (1750 - 1800)
Season 2 - Episode 4 - Aired May 29, 2001
How did a people who thought themselves free end up subjugating so much of the world, a nation with such a distrust of armies become the greatest military power on Earth, an empire of the free become an empire of slaves?Britons took the flag across the globe and created an empire built on ambition and slavery, exploration and daring. Trade flourished in the addictive commodities of tea, sugar and coffee, as did the deplorable trade in people. Taxation lost Britain the American colonies, but paved the way for dominance in India, as tax gatherers became administrators and merchants, emperors. The Wrong Empire is the exhilarating and terrible story of how one small group of islands came to dominate the world; a story of exploration and daring, but also one of exploitation and conflict.
#6 - King Death (1348 - 1500)
Season 1 - Episode 5 - Aired Oct 28, 2000
It took only six years for the plague to ravage the British Isles. Its impact was to last for generations. But from the ashes of this trauma an unexpected and unique class of Englishman emerged.
#7 - Dynasty (1087 - 1216)
Season 1 - Episode 3 - Aired Oct 14, 2000
There is no saga more powerful than that of the warring dynasty - domineering father, beautiful, scheming mother and squabbling, murderous sons and daughters, (particularly the nieces). In the years that followed the Norman Conquest, this was the drama played out on the stage of British history.
#8 - The Body of the Queen (1558 - 1603)
Season 1 - Episode 7 - Aired Nov 11, 2000
This is the story of two queens - Elizabeth I the consummate politician and Mary Queen of Scots the Catholic mother. It is also the story of the birth of a nation.
#9 - Beginnings (3100 BC - 1000 AD)
Season 1 - Episode 1 - Aired Sep 30, 2000
Simon Schama starts his story in the Stone Age village of Skara Brae, Orkney. Over the next four thousand years Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings and Christian missionaries arrive, fight, settle and leave their mark on what will become the nations of Britain.
#10 - Burning Convictions (1500 - 1558)
Season 1 - Episode 6 - Aired Nov 4, 2000
Here Simon Schama charts the upheaval caused as a country renowned for its piety, whose king styled himself Defender of the Faith, turns into one of the most aggressive proponents of the new Protestant faith.
#11 - Revolutions (1649 - 1689)
Season 2 - Episode 2 - Aired May 15, 2001
In the aftermath of Civil War, Britain was a kingless republic led by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell ruled with an iron hand; when Parliament dared defy him, he marched in and closed it down. He ruled as king in all but name, with his Major Generals imposing Godly Puritan rule on the counties. The anarchy that prevailed at his death led to the Restoration of Charles II, who survived the Great Fire and a dynastic crisis triggered by anti-Catholic paranoia. James II's Catholic fervour threatened to trigger another revolution; he was deposed by the troops of the Dutch King William.
#12 - Britannia Incorporated (1690 - 1750)
Season 2 - Episode 3 - Aired May 22, 2001
In 1690s England, the victors of the Glorious Revolution celebrated the dawn of a new era under a new king - William III. In Scotland, the Jacobites still supported the deposed King James II and the country suffered crippling poverty and famine.Relations between Scotland and England were tainted by the Glencoe Massacre in 1692 and Westminster's strategy to scupper the Darien venture. Half a century later, however, the two countries were forging a partnership, based on profit and interest, which evolved into the Act of Union in 1707.
#13 - Forces of Nature (1780 - 1832)
Season 3 - Episode 1 - Aired May 28, 2002
Britain never had the kind of revolution France experienced in 1789, but came close to it. This programme explains how 'the romantic generation' discovered the politics of sympathy with the common man. Nature was turned into a revolutionary idea by radicals and poets like Thomas Paine and William Wordsworth, and events across the channel following the fall of the Bastille initially seemed to point a way forward for Britain. But when the terrifying reality of the French Revolution set in, nature was recruited by the patriots.
#14 - Victoria and Her Sisters (1830 - 1910)
Season 3 - Episode 2 - Aired Jun 4, 2002
Queen Victoria came to the throne at the tender age of eighteen, to rule over a country in the throes of a painful but supercharged industrial transformation. Chaos and revolution had been predicted by both socialists and traditionalists but in fact family life provided a bedrock of stability. This is how Britain's women, from the Queen to Chartist charladies and West Indian nurses managed the intense change and attempted to galvanize social reform for their Victorian sisters.
#15 - The Empire of Good Intentions (1830 - 1925)
Season 3 - Episode 3 - Aired Jun 11, 2002
The British Empire promised peace, stability and prosperity but in Ireland and India it coincided with violence and famine. The programme examines the origins of agonies which continue to resonate today, and how political justice failed to feature in the administration of the time. As Victorian prime ministers, Gladstone and Disraeli promoted very different visions of Empire, but despite their lofty ideals, Schama observes how 'common humanity was sacrificed to the fetish of the market'.